If you are a regular visitor to your local art house cinema you would know that there are two kinds of French cinema. The artsy middle class dramas (and some genre movies too) that mainly revolve around the white French experience (Little White Lies, The Father of My Children, A Burning Hot Summer to name a few) but there are French filmmakers who dare to venture out of the bourgeois fishbowl and deal with the cultural and social menagerie that is modern France. It’s a parallel world of danger, impoverished hoodlums, life & death struggles, and things that bite. Jacques Audiard follows up his plaudit nabbing A Prophet with Rust and Bone, a film which juxtaposes both France’s to create a brutal and tender love story.
On the mean streets of Paris is Ali (Schoenaerts): a single father working as a bouncer, involved in bare knuckle fights but with dreams of making it big in kickboxing. Feckless about his parental responsibilities, he is more than content to let his long-suffering sister look after his six-year-old son Sam (Verdure). From the other side of the tracks hails Stephanie (Cotillard), a beautiful and almost arrogant young woman who trains huge Orca whales at a Sea World style aquarium.
At a club one night, Ali & Stephanie run into each other when Stephanie gets into a drunken fight in his club, worse for wear, Ali gentlemanly takes her home and Stephanie, whose had a bad track record with men, is touched by the consideration and delicacy which he has shown her. Things take a horrendous turn for Stephanie when one of the whales goes killer – reshaping her anatomy and her psyche in one chomp. Proud, the pity and nervous consideration about her condition from her family and friends, makes Stephanie nauseous and she finds that the only person she can bare is Ali, who is utterly unfazed and unembarrassed by her disability, so much so that he frankly asks Stephanie if she still has sexual desires which he confirms but she wonders if her bits ‘still work’, and Ali being no stranger to the one-night stand offers to help her ‘get back on the old horse’ so to speak. After a series of booty calls, gradually something deeper develops.
But before you think this is some soulful romantic melodrama – which on a level it is – the characters burgeoning relationship develops in interesting ways, the story takes some unexpected turns like halfway through the movie almost transforms into a Gallic backstreet Rocky. On paper many a moviegoer will roll their eyes at the many plot contrivances that one might have to bring a crane with them to suspend such disbelief but hold off because Audiard has cast two lead actors who deliver a matched set of raw performances that sell every moment. Matthias Schoenaerts effortlessly creates a troubled thug that is both thoughtless yet considerate and never once do. Marion Cotillard deftly swerves the emotional operatic nature of the melodrama and instead turns in a subtle performance that is acted out in the way that she holds herself, a spooky talent for writing complex feelings on her face as if from the inside which lends the wordless scenes great emotional power such as when she visits her workplace for the first time since the accident and she stands before the pool’s huge glass front and her Orca she trained, the one that maimed her, comes up to the glass and she brakes into her old hand signals and the creature follows her commands. It’s a wordless communion of souls that had the whole screening room in floods of tears.
Audiard does not rest on his actors and fills the movie with many moments of brutal beauty. To open a bare knuckle fight scene, Audiard starts with slow motion shot of a fresh bloody tooth that’s just been knocked out and which slides in an almost balletic whirl across the asphalt. Rust and Bone is a movie of grand ambition and dramatic range that despite the story wandering down distracting byroads it never devolves into tired cliches and schmaltzy dialogue. A tender and visually breathtaking film.